Table of Contents


The Contest for the Post-Pandemic World

Alexander Baunov

The effects of the biggest pandemic and economic downturn of the twenty-first century are a crisis for all—and an opportunity for some. Any global crisis on this scale disrupts the existing global order and inescapably creates a new one. The forces that were losing out under the current system clearly see a chance to reshape the world more to their liking.

This volume seeks to assess some of the early lessons of the pandemic and how it will—or will not—impact Russian foreign policy. Enough time has passed to discern new realities as they are coming into view. But the forces of continuity are no less powerful.

Western democracies, as the prime beneficiaries of the current order, have long monopolized the right to make the rules on the basis that they value human lives and freedom more than the other competing systems. The rest of the world, for its part, expects that the leading countries would justify their right to leadership by demonstrating both their technological superiority and all of the advantages that open democratic societies enjoy as they organized the fight against the new coronavirus.

Yet it’s precisely this moral basis for Western leadership that is being challenged most by the pandemic. Events on the ground no longer correspond to the simple division of the world into humane effective democracies on one side, and callous, inept authoritarian regimes on the other.

It’s important for those who would like to change the world order in their favor—i.e., authoritarian and rising powers seeking an independent voice in global affairs—to show that they are dealing with the epidemic at least as well as the current global leaders, if not better. This is one reason why China and Russia hurried to send aid abroad, both to their traditional allies and to Western democracies. It’s not just an expression of solidarity, it’s an instrument of soft power, and a demonstration of a certain superiority over their adversaries and competitors.

The pandemic has revealed how complex the structure of the world really is. Modern lifestyles, recreational activities, and everyday urban environments have turned out to be more important than the formal structure of political systems for how the virus could be—or is not—contained. Richer, more developed Western European countries suffered more than their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe, and it’s not yet clear why. The shocking toll of the pandemic on the United States undermines its status as the leader of an international system that is supposed to value human life first and foremost. It also is decidedly at odds with America’s position as the world’s richest and most scientifically and technologically advanced country.

The pandemic has also dealt a blow to proponents of authoritarian systems. In Russia, many observers expected to see proof of the benefits of the authoritarian model in crisis situations. None has been forthcoming. The theory that when put to the test, an authoritarian strong state with centralized power is more effective and decisive than democratic governments has not been corroborated.

The staff thanking servicemen of the Russian Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection Troops for carrying out disinfection procedures at the Pope John Paul I care home in Seriate to the south-east of Bergamo. Photo: Russian Defense Ministry/TASS

In many democratic countries, the epidemic has lifted the ratings of leaders and governments that demonstrated basic competence in handling the situation. Meanwhile, despite the conventional wisdom about modern-day authoritarianism that any crisis can be used to boost ratings, Putin’s popularity isn’t growing. On the contrary, it’s falling. The most conservative segments of Russian society, including the Russian Orthodox Church, which have long been mainstays of the Putin regime, turned out to be among the most vocal critics of the Kremlin’s response measures.

The idea that a strong and generous Putin would, in the event of a disaster, simply take full control of the situation, subdue the crisis with an iron hand, and help average people, turned out to be totally removed from reality. The level of control exercised by the central nervous system of Russia’s authoritarian government during the crisis proved to be a whole lot weaker than expected. Putin loosened the reins rather than tightening them, and then promptly receded into the background, allowing other figures to take responsibility for tackling the epidemic. The Kremlin’s emergency support for the Russian economy also came in far short of expectations.

For those who live in authoritarian countries such as Russia, the epidemic has cast doubt upon the connection between authoritarianism and security. Authoritarianism was not able to guarantee security and safety even for Chinese citizens, whose country was first to fall victim to the virus. That has seriously dented China’s international standing.

In the wake of the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, China—in the minds of many—has replaced Russia as the West’s principal adversary. The pandemic has hastened the arrival of a new era of bipolarity. The second- and third-order consequences of the crisis caused by the virus will far exceed the fallout from the half-dozen years of worsening tensions between Russia and the West. This new environment might lead Moscow, on the one hand, and Western capitals, on the other, to reassess their current policies. Harsh Sino-American bipolarity is an obvious challenge to both Russia and Europe, creating an interest in at least exploring possibilities for improving badly damaged relations.

More important, however, is that exactly as the United States has been unable to provide to the world the model of efficiency in the hard times of the pandemic, Russia failed to do the same in the post-Soviet space. Former Soviet republics, Russia’s nominal allies, and even Russia-friendly populations in the neighborhood haven’t found in Russia either an example to emulate or the main source of support. The coronavirus has undermined Russia’s claim to be the most effective power in its neighborhood. One of the reasons why Vladimir Putin was in such a hurry with the Victory Day parade in late June and the popular vote on constitutional amendments on July 1, 2020, is because after having displayed his weakness he wants to reestablish as quickly as possible the image of the strongman fully in control of traditional and familiar tools of power.

The short essays in this panoramic collection examine the various implications of the pandemic for Russia’s foreign relations. Eugene Rumer presents a broad overview of U.S.-Russian relations, defining their agenda and highlighting both the areas of tensions that may yet grow more intense and the potential for dialogue and even cooperation, however modest it may be. He states clearly that fresh accusations of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential elections in 2020 would not only preclude any cooperation in those few areas, but send the relationship to even lower depths. Dmitri Trenin, looking at the same subject from a Moscow perspective, paints a bleak picture of a relationship sustained mainly by mutual deterrence and the guardrails erected around it. He describes the Kremlin’s attempt to use the pandemic as a means to relaunch dialogue with the Trump administration as hopeless from the start and foresees the advent of an era in which arms control is history. Trenin also points to the need for Russia to keep its equilibrium in the face of the U.S.-China rivalry which, in the midst of the pandemic, has intensified to the level of confrontation.

Alexander Gabuev and Temur Umarov discuss the increasingly important relationship between Russia and China and conclude that the coronavirus serves to further increase Russia’s reliance on China, particularly in such areas as trade, investment, and technology. Andrey Kortunov, for his part, argues that Russia and the European Union are emerging weakened from the current crisis, both in absolute terms and relative to the two superpowers, the United States and China, and calls for using even limited opportunities for EU-Russian cooperation. Public displays of solidarity, such as sending Russian military medics to Italy’s coronavirus-hit Lombardy region, are not enough and moreover are controversial. Looking at Europe’s southeast, Maxim Samorukov finds a similar dispatch of Russian military personnel to Serbia to be a gesture that only masks Moscow’s waning influence in the Balkans, where the EU is becoming increasingly dominant, and China, rather than Russia, remains the only real alternative.

Marianna Belenkaya and Tatiana Mitrova focus on the issues of the Middle East and the fate of Russia’s energy industry. Belenkaya looks at the Saudi-Russian oil price war as an example of the volatile relations between Moscow and Riyadh, and the broader picture of Moscow’s involvement in the region where tactical successes—e.g., in Syria and Libya—have not yet been crowned by strategic achievements. Looking at the coronavirus-induced collapse of the oil price, Mitrova concludes that while the immediate effect on the Russian budget is tolerable, this development brings forward a major change in the global energy balance away from overreliance on oil, and that Russia should start adapting its energy policy to that change.  

Several authors of the compendium pieces look at the new states in former Soviet Eurasia. Paul Stronski discusses the coronavirus-related experiences of the countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia. While the record of dealing with the virus among those countries differs widely, a salient feature is the virtual absence of Russia as a factor in anti-pandemic efforts. Ukrainian officials, according to Konstantin Skorkin, have hoped that the “coronacrisis” would induce Moscow to seek accommodation with Kyiv on Donbas, but as he himself notes, Ukraine’s own weakness makes it vulnerable to Russia’s pressure. President Volodymyr Zelensky, who came to power in 2019 hoping to resolve the conflict in Donbas, may discover that the only option realistically available to him is to maintain the status quo in Ukraine’s east. Finally, Artyom Shraibman, writing from Minsk, analyzes another spike in Russo-Belarusian tensions provoked by the two countries’ different policies in dealing with the coronavirus. The situation is complicated by the Belarusian presidential elections set for August 9, 2020, in which Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, faces unusual challenges inside the country even as he seeks to portray himself as a defender of Belarusian sovereignty against Russia.   

While the coronavirus has mostly exacerbated the trends already present in the international system, it can be seen as a watershed. Russia’s foreign policy will not change immediately. One can even argue that Moscow had anticipated some of the trends empowered by the coronavirus, such as the reassertion of the nation-state and securitization of economic policies. Yet the Kremlin’s policies cannot stay immune from the effects of the pandemic. Russian leaders will have to devote more time and resources to consolidate the regime at home. The West should not expect any concessions from Russia, whether on arms control or Donbas or the Middle East, but the Kremlin’s foreign policy activism will probably be tempered in the near future. Beyond that, Russia faces a major challenge: it cannot hope to keep its great-power status regained under Putin unless it manages to relaunch its economy, rebuild its technological power severely diminished in the post-Soviet period, and reform its antiquated and self-serving politico-economic system.